How to Thrive on Stress


Successful people thrive on stress.

“Thrive,” after all, is the #1 synonym of “succeed.” And let’s face it: real life is full of stress. If you want to be successful and thrive in life, you need to be successful and thrive in the midst of stress.

Stress itself isn’t the problem. It’s a sign you have values and are trying to live up to them. Often, the things that stress you out are what make life worth living. For example, here are three signs you are thriving and (probably) experiencing stress:


1. You’re learning and growing.

Change is inherently stressful. Even good change. In fact, many of the most stressful life events are cause for celebration: Moving out and going to college! Getting a job! Marriage! Having a baby! Even winning the lottery is ranked as a super stressful event. So, what’s the answer? Don’t grow up? Don’t get a job? Don’t live life? Any time you stretch outside your comfort zone, you give your brain and body a reason to get angsty. But as you know (because you actually have lived life), stretching out of your comfort zone just makes it bigger. Over time, what once stressed you out becomes manageable, even routine.

You’ve experienced this, I’m sure. Learning the new software system makes you feel stupid at first; but after a while you forget it ever was new. When you move to a new city, you constantly feel lost; but gradually, it becomes home. The first few months after a promotion, you teeter on the brink of overwhelm and failure; and then you find your footing. Every change and shift comes with stress, but you can handle it. You wouldn’t enjoy your life—you certainly wouldn’t be thriving—if you never grew.


2. You’re in a meaningful relationship.

Any and every significant relationship will bring you some stress. If all a relationship brings you is stress, it’s time to break ties and move on. But stress is a sign you care. If you didn’t care about people, you’d have much less stress in your life. And much less meaning.

So many of the communication issues that come up in my coaching practice revolve around relationships: “My coworker hates me and I’m miserable.” “My boss overlooks me and I don’t know how to speak up.” “My husband is pressuring me to retire and I’m not ready yet.” Between caring about others and living according to your own values lies tension. The two don’t always line up nice and neatly. If you don’t care at all about others, well, you’re probably a jerk and pretty lonely. If you care too much, you’re giving your self and your life away. Neither extreme sounds like thriving to me. But it’s easy to fall into those traps in the name of avoiding stress.

Thriving at work (and in life) means embracing relationships and all that comes with them. If there’s never any tension or conflict in your relationships, they probably aren’t real. Some stress in your relationships is a sign that you’re engaged and connected—something we all need to thrive.  


3. You’re fighting for someone or something you believe in.

One of my coaching clients recently left a toxic work environment to start her own business. She was a ball of nerves and fears. She worked hard to make her business a success, but the work was frantic, reactionary, driven by fear. And the stress was killing her—she was very close to burning out. With some reminders, she remembered why she wanted to start her company in the first place: to support and promote other small minority-owned businesses. When she switched from fighting out of fear to fighting for a cause, her mindset, feelings, motivation, and presence all changed. She became calm, focused, proactive, and fierce. She had so much more energy, clarity, and hope! This changed the way she presented herself and her business. Instead of anxiously seeking work to keep her business afloat, she became a powerful advocate that clients eagerly sought.

Sometimes you have to fight. You might fight for your rights or a promotion, you may be fighting an illness or a bad habit, you might fight to protect your company’s system from hackers or your project from ending up on the cutting floor. Fighting is stressful because it means something important is at stake. You could lose. And yet, if there is nothing or no one in your life you’d be willing to fight for, what is the point?

The world need fighters. Your world—your business, your community, your family—needs fighters. But we need people who fight out of hope, not out of fear. If you’re working to uplift a person or an ideal, instead of to smash down, that’s a good sign that your life has meaning. When you’re battling for what you believe in, even when you lose you still gain—you gain self-respect, confidence, a new perspective, and clarity. To thrive, you need to work toward something bigger than yourself.


Stress isn’t going away. As I often say in presentations, you can’t break up with stress. You are in a lifelong committed relationship with stress. There is no divorce court. Instead of trying to get rid of it, instead of stressing over how stressed you over, learn to thrive on it.

You can choose how you respond to stressors. In our current anxiety-ridden, aggressively polarized culture, the default response to stress is fight-or-flight. Come out swinging or run and hide in the corner. According to author Kelly McGonigal, you have two other options that will lead to less anxiety, less rage, more effectiveness, and much more peace and power.


1. Challenge

The challenge response gives you energy, focus, and helps you achieve under pressure. It gives you better access to your mental and physical resources, resulting in better performance and more confidence. And it feels good! To access the challenge response:

  • Change your perspective from facing a threat to facing a challenge
  • Remind yourself of all your resources—your skills, your network, your own brain… the list goes on and on
  • Accept and make peace with your physical symptoms
  • Trust your brain and body to help you, instead of hinder you
  • Consider your goals and why this challenge is important to you

With a challenge response, instead of feeling self-doubt or frustration, you feel energized and capable. That’s because you actually have more energy and access to all your capabilities. Do yourself a favor when you’re under stress, and switch from fight-or-flight to challenge. You’ll feel better, you’ll perform better, and you’ll thrive.


2. Tend-and-Befriend

The tend-and-befriend response motivates you to turn toward and fight for the people you care about. It releases oxytocin which dampens fear and encourages connection. (It’s also good for you—specifically your heart.) The tend-and-befriend response can override your survival instinct and make you capable of great acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. It is a powerful, cooperative, hopeful response that builds resilience and grit. To access the tend-and-befriend response:

  • Be open about your struggles (I promise you aren’t the only one who’s experienced them)
  • Build, and then turn to your network
  • Focus on helping others, instead of your own survival—the greater your stress, the more important and helpful this step is because it releases a boatload of beneficial hormones and changes your outlook
  • Consider your values and how you want to be a contribution beyond the scope of this specific stressor

The fight-or-flight response pushes you to either attack or withdraw. Most of the time in our modern context, that’s not super helpful! By getting your brain off yourself and on to others—your team, your organization, your community—you switch it from fear to hope, from self-doubt to self-confidence, and from paralysis to action. And… (this should sound familiar) you’ll feel better, you’ll perform better, and you’ll thrive.


When something is stressing you out, you get to choose.* Which of these three responses will serve you best? Ask yourself: Is my life in danger? If yes, choose fight-or-flight. Otherwise, skip it! Skip the anxiety and the angstyness and choose to rise to the challenge or reach out to others.

Stress is a sign that you’re living life—a meaningful life. As McGonigal writes, “Higher levels of stress seem to go along with things we want: love, health, and satisfaction.” People who thrive during times of stress see it as a normal part of life and an opportunity to grow. With a change of perspective, you, too, can thrive on stress.


Change your communication, change your life.


*If you have experienced trauma and have PTSD, your body will likely be more easily hijacked by certain triggers. There is still hope. Check out The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk for info on changing your responses.


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